Exercise for Life!
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Exercise for Life!

Nine simple strategies that will turn your workout into a can't-live-without habit.

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You've heard it before: Regular exercise increases your energy and metabolism, improves strength and flexibility, decreases stress, brightens your mood and helps fight disease as you age. With all those fantastic benefits, why would you ever skip a workout? Alas, fitting it in can be difficult as your life gets busier. What you need is a plan that makes out as much second nature as brushing your teeth. Use these nine strategies to turn exercise into your favorite new habit.

1. Pick the right buddy

Exercising with a peer can make the difference between quitting or sticking with a fitness plan, but not just any old buddy will do. Find someone who's fitter than you are, suggests John Jakicic, Ph.D., an associate professor of exercise science at Brown Medical School in Providence, Rhode Island, who supervises an ongoing exercise study called the Mentor Program. After starting 120 people on a walking plan, he split the group into "mentors" (those who excel at exercise and who were losing more weight) and "mentorees" (those who were lagging behind or weren't seeing results). Jakicic found that not only do the the mentorees do better and stick to exercise when matched with advanced exercisers, but the mentors -- who provide follow-up calls, companionship and advice -- perform significantly better when paired with the mentorees.

2. Mix it up

"Motivation may ebb and flow over the course of a few months, so learn how to ride the waves," says Scott. If you're occasionally uninspired or feel like you've hit a plateau, change your routine. Hire a personal trainer once a month to reorganize your program, try a martial arts class with your kids, or sign up for flamenco lessons. "You'll be stronger and have more energy for all of your other activities, and it will keep you motivated to exercise," says Scott. You can also spice things up simply by altering the intensity or duration of your workout or switching from weight machines to dumbbells. Research shows that your body adapts to an exercise after just two to three weeks. Think of this as your "grace period." After that, you'll stop seeing results unless you take action.

3. Get a daily dose

"To make exercise a ritual, avoid taking two consecutive days off," urges Richard Cotton, chief exercise physiologist for First Fitness, a consulting company based in Salt Lake City. People who work out just once or twice a week are more likely to fall off the exercise wagon than those who do it three or more times a week, he explains. That's because consistency affects adherence more do than how long you work out or what you do. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that you exercise three to five days per week; if you can squeeze in only three, spread them out over the week to sustain your momentum.

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4. Have a backup plan

Identify the scenarios that might derail your routine -- vacations, holidays and work deadlines -- and prepare an alternative workout strategy, says Andrea Dunn, Ph.D., associate director of the Cooper Institute of Aerobics Research in Dallas and coauthor of Active Living Every Day (Human Kinetics 2001). Make a list of these potential "barriers to fitness" on one side of a notebook and "solutions" on the other. Whenever you get sidetracked, you'll know exactly what to do to overcome it. Above all, avoid berating yourself or adopting an all-or-nothing attitude. "You think, 'I missed a workout today and I'm going away for the weekend, so I may as well give up and start fresh on Monday,'" says Dunn. "Instead of feeling guilty or frustrated, accept that you missed a few session and simply do better tomorrow."

5. Aim high - but not too high

Whether you want to increase your aerobic endurance or do 25 regulation-style push-ups, having something to work toward is a surefire way to keep you going. You're more likely to stick to your goals, though, if you perceive them as short-term, specific and realistic, like "I will walk 20 minutes every day" (versus "I will exercise more"), says Brian Sharkey, Ph.D., former president of the American College of Sports Medicine and author of Fitness and Health, 5th Edition (Human Kinetics 2002). When you find yourself meeting goals with ease, set more challenging ones and revisit them every four to six weeks.

6. Chart your progress

Keeping written track of your fitness routine and your progress is one of the most effective ways to lose weight and stick with exercise, says Dunn. Research found that people who kept diet and/or workout logs lost weight while those who didn't gained weight. Furthermore, those who kept detailed diaries lost twice as much weight as those who kept briefer logs. Be sure to record the type of activity, duration, intensity, distance, calories burned and location as well as your attitude (were you grumpy, high-energy, stressed, happy), how you slept the night before and any diet "blips" - "gorged on chocolate in the afternoon" or "skipped breakfast." A pedometer, heart-rate monitor or stopwatch can provide the details you need to keep a complete diary and give you immediate gratification as well, says Los Angeles–based Reebok master trainer Jeffrey Scott. Knowing how far and how fast you run or walk, how many calories you burn and how intensely you're working is an excellent motivator, especially if you compare it to your past performance.

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7. Do "mini" workouts

If you're strapped for time, keep your mind and body in the exercise groove by squeezing in just 10 to 15 minutes of activity. Do three such blocks a day and you up your chances of dropping unwanted pounds. Studies have found that people who participate in short bouts of exercise throughout the day accumulate more workout time per week than those who do a traditional 30- or 45-minute program, says Jakicic. "If you can't walk for an hour, get out there for as long as you can, even if it's just 15 minutes."

8. Schedule exercise appointments

Leave sticky notes on your computer or set an alarm to go off at your regular workout hour each day. "A habit starts when you do the same thing at the same time almost every day—no excuses," says Cotton. Once you've established a pattern, make that treadmill session as important as a meeting with the higher-ups. "The critical moment comes when you have a pile of papers waiting and deadlines looming but that alarm goes off and you head out the door," he says. Research at First Fitness has shown that morning exercisers may be slightly more successful than afternoon or evening participants because they're finished with exercise before distractions and fatigue hit. "But stick to the time that works best for you,"

9. Reward yourself

Research from the Cooper Institute shows that people who reward themselves are two to three times more likely to meet the ACSM's physical activity guidelines than people who don't treat themselves. "One woman in our Project Active study decided that she'd take herself on a walking vacation in Ireland if she kept at it for a year -- and she did," Dunn explains. Another participant bought herself new walking shoes after the first two months and new workout clothes at the end of six months. The reward structure can be as simple as allowing yourself to watch Friends only after you do 100 crunches. "Just decide what's important to you and link it to regular exercise," says Dunn.